Thursday, 20 August 2020

Autumn Books 2020

 by Philip Hooker

Once again, I have surveyed The Bookseller’s Buyers’ Guides, looking for forthcoming (or recent) books on classical themes which publishers believe will be of interest to the general reader.   There are not so many this time, so I have again called in a number from elsewhere.    And indicated publication dates may not be currently reliable. Paul Cartledge’s book on Thebes, due in May, widely and favourably reviewed, is not, in fact, emerging as a hardback until November; at this stage we just have the e-book.

I start with two outstanding books from leading scholars. Roy Gibson’s Man of High Empire, the Life of Pliny the Younger, was very highly praised by Rebecca Langlands: “A wise and humane biography, finely crafted....Gibson writes beautifully, with gentle wit, and his insights are so grounded in vivid landscapes as to linger in the mind long after the book has been laid aside”. Edith Hall and Henry Stead have produced A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939 – the influence of the subject on ordinary working people. It tells of Chartist Banners, Staffordshire pots, Dissenting schools, autodidacts, Robert Tressell’s debt to Plato, the work of Christopher Caudwell and Jack Lindsay and much more. The Morning Star’s reviewer called it a riveting and entertaining read, “a classic in every sense of the word”. David Butterfield, in History Today, was less impressed; he noted the almost complete lack of coverage of the role of grammar schools and the likes of Richard Porson; its “rich and varied pickings have much to teach and inspire”, but it does lack balance.

There are two notable books which are likely to feature at literary festivals. Peter Stothard offers The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar. Octavian tracked them all down, but Cassius Parmensis, poet and sailor, evaded his agents for 14 years. “A political thriller and a human story that astonishes” declares Hilary Mantel. Natalie Haynes has Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths (“Box”, we are told, was a 16th century mistranslation of pithos by Erasmus).

Popular fiction includes the latest works from Harry Sidebottom, Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden, Robert Fabbri, Simon Turney, Antony Riches and Christian Cameron. These continue to sell very well. The most imaginative work is probably Philip Womack’s The Arrow of Apollo, a fresh interpretation of Greek Myth for young adults, set in Achaea and Mycenae 15 years after the Trojan War.

We also note a number of non-fiction works by what might be called professional authors (rather than academics). These include Adrian Goldsworthy’s Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors, a double biography based in Macedon, Guy de la Bédoyère’s Gladius: Living, Fighting and Dying in the Roman Army, and Emma Southon’s A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome.

Broadening our scope, we have Robin Lane Fox with The Invention of Medicine: from Homer to Hippocrates (whose Books 3 and 5 may belong to a much earlier era than generally recognised), Benjamin Wardhaugh’s The Book of Wonders: How Euclid’s Elements Built The World – influencing 2,000 years of art, philosophy and literature, and Pauline Allen and Bronwen Nash with Greek and Latin Letters in Late Antiquity: The Christianisation of a Literary Form.

Less literary works include Susan Woodford’s Greek and Roman Art in the Art Essentials series and a new series of multimedia Apple e-books on ancient theatre for the 21st century edited by Fiona McIntosh and team, currently the Agamemnon (in instalments), previously Medea, based on APGRD’s collected materials. Naxos’ latest classical audiobook is Tacitus, read by David Timson – and Julian Morgan has published Quare id Faciam: The Latin Puzzle Book – 100 word games, all in Latin, “definitely not a book for Latin beginners”.

New translations include Virgil’s Aeneid by Shadi Bartsch and a continuing series from Princeton with jolly titles – How to Be Content: An Ancient Poet’s Guide for an Age of Excess is Horace translated by Stephen Harrison; How to Give: An Ancient Guide to Giving and Receiving is Seneca translated by James Romm and How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing is Vincent Obsopoeus translated by Michael Fontaine. New texts and commentaries include Juvenal: Satires Book V edited by John Godwin, Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannus edited by Jenny March and (in the CUP Green and Yellow series) Plautus: Pseudolus edited by David Christenson. 

Philip Hooker is the Hon. Treasurer of the Classical Association, and writes regularly for the CA Blog on Classics in the Media